September 12, 2013

United Way adopts new fundraising strategy

Education will be the focus when The United Way of the Midlands holds its Literacy Live campaign kickoff event Tuesday at Edventure children’s museum.

Education will be the focus when The United Way of the Midlands holds its Literacy Live campaign kickoff event Tuesday at Edventure children’s museum.

But as the agency launches its annual fundraising campaign, it will be without a publically stated financial goal – a stark departure from previous campaigns.

United Way officials say they have an internal goal for this year’s campaign but have decided not to make that number public. Instead they plan to focus more on community needs, believing the necessary financial support will follow.

“We know that people donate their dollars and their time because they believe in a cause, not to help reach a specific fundraising goal,” United Way president and CEO Mac Bennett said. “We’re not kicking off another year of fundraising, but we are kicking off another year of impacting student success and other community needs.”

Campaign donations have averaged around $10 million in recent years, and last year’s campaign set a record when the agency reached a $10.4 million goal.

Money raised through the annual campaign supports a targeted set of community needs, including literacy, homelessness and health care.

Some individual companies will continue to announce financial goals for their in-house United Way campaigns.

“Our goal is to thank our volunteers and these companies for their efforts while inspiring the Midlands community at the same time,” said Holt Chetwood, co-chair for the United Way of the Midlands 2013 Campaign. “We want to send the message that by working together we can make an impact.”

Bennett talked recently about the revamped approach to the annual campaign and the plans for the coming year.

What was the general thinking behind the switch from a financial campaign kickoff to this year’s Literacy Live event?

“We wanted to do a better job of educating our donors, volunteers and the community at large about the issues we’re focusing on. Early literacy and kindergarten readiness are two of the most crucial issues in the community, and we have some exciting new programs and (support) partners that we want to recognize. We wanted to host an event that appealed to a wider audience. Literacy Live is education-focused, but it’s also fun.”

Have you found evidence that donations naturally follow passions?

“We know that people donate their dollars and their time because they believe in a cause, not to help reach a specific fundraising goal. We also know that getting donors more engaged in an issue, calling on them to volunteer and make a difference with their time as well as money, can lead to a larger investment on their part.”

Are you aware of other communities that have had success using this approach?

“We’ve seen some other United Ways who have really focused a lot of energy into one or two specific issues successfully. We know that similar approaches have been successful in other communities.”

The United Way has reached or come very close to reaching its financial goals the past several years, even as the economy experienced a downturn. What do you attribute to this success?

“We live in a very generous community, and we have been fortunate to have the support of great companies and hundreds of talented volunteers who know how important this work is. Also, the work United Way does resonates with the community. This is evident when hundreds of volunteers show up for community events and when local employers have doubled their efforts to increase our level of fundraising over the past few years.”

So has financial support in this community reached the point that an official campaign kickoff is no longer necessary?

“We are still an organization that is metric-driven, and that hasn’t changed. We still have a campaign goal that we’re working toward this year. We still need the community’s (financial) support to be successful. We’re already seeing a lot of positive results from our Pacesetter campaigns. We just want to shift the focus from a dollar figure to the issues we’re trying to solve. And we’d still like to recognize the workplaces and the donors who make it possible. But what we want to change is the focus on a campaign goal to a focus on the issues we’re impacting and the opportunities we’re creating to improve lives.”

Tuesday’s Literacy Live event has a very specific focus. Those issues are important, but where do other basic needs fit in?

“We’re still focused on helping reduce homelessness and providing access to affordable health care. Both of those issues are critical to improving our community.”

The United Way’s funding philosophy has shifted in recent years from supporting individual agencies to supporting a broader group of services that target a common set of community needs. Is that still the operating principle for funding?

“Yes. Our volunteers were clear over a decade ago. United Way needed a fresh model for distributing funds. That model is needed to identify and prioritize issues, direct investments to the highest priorities and then evaluate results. All of our work continues to be guided by community data.”

United Way campaign launch: If you go

The United Way will launch its 2013-14 fundraising campaign with a Literacy Live event from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday at EdVenture children’s museum, 211 Gervais St. The children’s band “Like Totally!” will provide entertainment, and several children’s book authors are scheduled for story time.

The United Way also will recognize several Pacesetter and Advanced campaigns that have run early campaigns or have increased their employee participation or giving. Tuesday’s event is free and open to the public.

Companies interested in running workplace campaigns should contact Michael Gray, United Way vice president of resource development, at (803) 733-5422 or

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